48 hours in Athens.
The water drinks up the setting sun and its regal blue-green changes hue into golden-rose. The lit lamp posts as well as the yachts sleeping in Flisvos Harbour welcome the calm vibe. Surrounded by the silhouette of mountains, I watch the city of Athens slow its pace down for the day. But the night is only starting for me, and I set off to meet the creatives that call this wonderland their home. It seems appropriate that the first Greek I’m greeted by is named Athina who, whipping around from the front seat incredulously asks: “So you’ve never had traditional Greek food?”
Athina Panou – my host for the evening and one of Athens’ only culinary photographers, food stylist, founder of the foodblog Sugarbuzz and all-round food enthusiast – is now determined to rectify my crime.
A similar enthusiasm is applied when it comes to hospitality, and so the Athens experience begins in Athina’s spacious flat located in the northern Marousi district. In no time she’s generously plated out a refreshing summer dinner comprised of Greek salad, pita bread, a yoghurt based tzatziki dip, tyropitakia (mini cheese pies) and traditional koulouria cookies which she’s baked herself, of course. It will take the next 48 hours for me to realize that dinner with Athina and her companions was only the opening act to a plethora of culinary, design, history and fashion experiences to be had in Greece’s capitol.
Seven levels of luxury.
I stray from the beaten paths to the usual suspects of iconic architecture and instead head to Filellinon Street for an exploration of the Greek-Brazilian influenced NEW Hotel. The building’s former shell was saved from dilapidation and the interior elegantly reconceptualised by a fresh architectural design team. Seven levels of exotic woods, golden metalwork and the original marble stairwell provide an imaginarium for the cultured globetrotter desiring a challenge to the standards of contemporary luxury. There, events manager Elena Lissaiou confidently strides into the lobby wearing sunglasses, a billowing black shirt, and salmon coloured trousers – the image of sophisticated Mediterranean chic.
She guides me to the hotel’s restaurant NEW Taste where, reminiscent of Arne Quinze’s design for L’Eclaireur in Paris, wooden elements from the hotel’s original self have been reappropriated to create sprouting tree trunks under which one dines seated in plush velvet furnishings. With British-trained chef Steven Frost at the kitchen’s helm, patrons can enjoy contemporary cooking and seasonal Mediterranean menus. Elena suggests that I also try a coffee since “this is one of the very few places in Athens for quality coffee.”
Walking with Nileta.
As promised, the espresso is impeccable and I sip it with relish. The setting is ideal for any rendezvous, in this case with Nileta Kotsikou, archivist of Greek creatives. Sidestepping the usual tourist attractions, I enter a whirlwind introduction tour, meeting architects constructing a rooftop bar, designers setting up their studios in seemingly abandoned buildings, and having Greek coffee at local hangouts and hidden courtyard cafes.
The experience is highlighted with an extensive lunch in the company of two Greek philosophers in a cellar restaurant dating back well over a century.
What makes Nileta the ultimate purveyor of design lifestyles is her imatiothiki (meaning “wardrobe”) documentation, where she’s curated a stunning collection of creative minds across Greece. This personal treasure trove includes exposés of ballet dancers, chefs, bakers, architects, musicians, curators, fashion bloggers, typographers and editors, all befriended, photographed and introduced with a very specific intent of revealing personal tastes on clothes and design.
From Kolonaki Square, I wander up the streets of this fashionable district. Eventually I find myself smiling down at half of Athens from the penthouse balcony of Minas Minastis, art director and founding editor of Eternal-Optimist, “an online destination for fashion, art, culture and opinions.” “So Minas, why Eternal and Optimist?” I ask. For him, it started with Samuel Beckett’s play “Happy Days” in which the character Winnie can be seen as the penultimate eternal optimist.
“Every morning, she would wake up and be happy – with nothing!” Minas beams with delight, “and she would enjoy her life. No. Matter. What.” It’s evident: a similar enthusiasm for life drives Minas in his work.
Having developed an endless network over the years, as well as having enjoyed the opportunity to travel since childhood, “I’ve never stuck to the Greek thing without rejecting it,” he says. This cultural diversity allows him to see beyond the melodramatic tragedy rooted in Greek culture, choosing instead to present a variety of international aesthetics and perspectives.
I leave posing one last question: “Why Athens if you’ve seen the world?”
From Mount Lykavittos.
Minas’ response is imprinted on my mind and I carry it with me to the top of Mount Lykavittos, 277m above sea level, for a farewell sunset. The Acropolis pulls upward toward the sky from a dense city fabric and gleams with ancient dignity. I reflect on all the moments I’ve shared with the various self-appointed champions of design and beauty in the city spread below me. The full significance of Minas’ words no doubt reflect those of Athens’ design milieu, and here, overlooking the city, they start to sink in, as does the warm night.
“The reason I’m still here and haven’t left is the spirit of the Ancient Greeks. It has something to do with the energy of the sun, the colours of the Mediterranean, and the history of the Parthenon. The spirit of Greece is in this place. And it’s marvellously unique.”